Down at the Heel

You can see that the lacquer is broken right at the heel join but does that mean the structural integrity is compromised?

Everybody who is considering the purchase of an expensive vintage guitar asks the same question. Any breaks, cracks or repairs? It’s the right question to ask and it’s also a hard question to answer. I’m going to concentrate on one area here. The heel-where the neck meets the body. This is not a weak point on an ES-335 and is rarely an issue (like it is on most SGs). The long tenon design of the neck join has proven itself over more than 60 years. But there are still questions regarding the heel, so I’ll try to address them. Ideally, when seeking out a vintage 335, you want to minimize structural issues. But a perfect neck join on any vintage ES is not so easy to find. By perfect I mean, no lacquer break at the join. It’s funny, most folks accept lacquer checking all over the guitar without batting an eye but if the lacquer is cracked along the seams at the heel, many buyers balk. The truth is that the lacquer across those seams is just as likely to check as anywhere else on the guitar. Perhaps even more likely since there is some “give” at any glue joint. Once the lacquer has completely cured (and an extra 40 or 50 years for good measure), it isn’t terribly elastic but the wood underneath still “breathes”. So the wood moves and the lacquer doesn’t. That’s what causes checking. Now, consider that a single span of lacquer crosses from the maple laminate body to the solid mahogany neck and you got two different kinds of woods moving with the heat and humidity and the lacquer having to stay intact. Not so likely after 50 years. I would estimate that 75% of the ES’s I see have a lacquer break at the heel. It usually just follows the seams and has nothing to do with the integrity of the neck join itself. It also gets full of crud like guitar polish residue and dirt so it often looks a lot worse than it is. It’s not hard to see a repair at the heel and it’s not hard to see a real stress crack in the lacquer. The lacquer at the seams can flake a little or bulge a little but as long as the glue joint is solid and shows no sign of repair, you shouldn’t worry too much about it unless you’re spending some big bucks on a mint guitar. By all means, use the broken lacquer at the heel as a warning sign to look more closely at the neck pocket (the neck pickup rout). It’s a pretty good indicator that something has been done in there but if you see no sign of a reglue or clamp marks or overspray at the heel, then don’t worry about the integrity of the neck join. Just a note, if you see shims on either or both sides of the tenon, don’t jump to the conclusion that repair work was done. Lots of guitars came from the factory with shims in there. Hand tools are notoriously inaccurate and if the tenon was a bit loose in there, a small shim was added. If you conclude that something is amiss in there, then by all means, pass it by if the price doesn’t reflect the problem. But if it’s simply a break in the lacquer at the heel, that isn’t enough to set off any alarms. Interestingly, it’s less of a concern on other Gibsons (particularly Les Pauls) because the heel isn’t flush with the back of the guitar. That “shelf” makes a lacquer break a lot less obvious and, in my limited dealings with LP’s, no one has ever even brought it up. Would I rather have a guitar with no lacquer checking anywhere? Yes but I know I’ll pay for it.

Would I worry about the neck join on this 59? Nope. Not for a second.


9 Responses to “Down at the Heel”

  1. RAB says:

    Thank goodness Ted McCarty’s design provided a very strong neck joint on the ES-series unlike on the SG (who designed that?!)

  2. Butch says:

    Charlie, have you ever posted on the various sizes and shapes of the heel?I’ve noticed variation in the size and shape of the heels on my ES’s and others…any patterns here concerning years, era’s, transitions, etc?

  3. OK Guitars says:

    I haven’t done that yet but it will be a good follow up to the post I just did. Good idea. Thanks.

  4. OK Guitars says:

    I believe it was Mickey Mouse. He was upset that his ears were no longer being used. Actually I think there were no less than 5 different neck join designs for the SG between 1960 and 1969. None of them very good.

  5. RAB says:

    Yes, unfortunate engineering on those SG neck joints especially the late 1960’s “squared-off, 2X4” configuration? They may have been strong but super-ugly and made playing difficult in the upper register! And who could forget the hideous volutes employed by Gibson on many models during the late 1960’s in an attempt to strengthen the transition from headstock to neck?

  6. TN says:

    Re headstock photos I see on the web, often the serial number is partially blocked out on purpose by the owner. Why would someone be reluctant to reveal this info to potential buyers?..Related to this, I imagine that there is a market blacklist built over the years of serial numbers of guitars that are fake, stolen or have a serious problem that is not apparent. That list would be VERY useful!

  7. lacquer checking is caused “solely” by quick differences in temperature exposure!….eg; taking cold git(10o)out of case into warm environ(75o)! .relic’ed gits checking is done by freezing the lacquer!….wood doesn’t breathe!…it’s dead!…LOL…I’ll sell anybody my ’63 Epi Casino!…as much checking as you’ve ever seen(lots of horizontal on neck)
    !…brother in law was bar player and He left in car or front porch overnight in NY State winter!…the extra checkin’ is expensive!…but I’ll sell it for high price!

  8. OK Guitars says:

    I could never figure out why people were so reluctant to reveal serial numbers. It’s not like someone is going to steal your identity based on your guitars serial number. I think it’s fine if a seller wants to block out the last 2 digits, it really doesn’t make any difference. There is no such list. It would be useful if there was. Serial numbers can’t help you with a fake and there is no database of stolen ones either, although the victims are always on the lookout for their long lost stolen guitars.

  9. OK Guitars says:

    Wood, although it’s dead, will expand and contract depending on moisture and temperature. It’s not the temperature that checks it as you say, it’s the change and that’s due to the reaction of the wood and the lack of reaction in the lacquer. At least that’s how it was explained to me by a fairly highly regarded luthier.

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